There is no question Rob Manfred can be a very good commissioner, as Tim Brosnan would have been, and so would Bob Iger had baseball been willing to look outside their house.
Manfred knows where the bodies are buried. He understands some of the issues in the gathering storms between a new union leadership and owners and between small and large markets, and the feeling in Cleveland and Tampa Bay and Oakland that unless there is better access to amateur talent, those markets will not be able to compete and survive. Manfred has long been fair, a good listener, and he is prepared for the blood that may be shed in the Peter Angelos-MLB war over MASN revenues. He, like everyone, has heard the calls for quickening the pace of games (nothing new has been proposed this year, little thought since Bill Veeck instituted the “pitch clock” back in the 1970’s).
He will have Bud Selig for advice, counsel and the occasional heavy hand necessary to deal with individual club issues. He is well-versed and how and where the supplies of PED’s are located, and will not be taken by surprise by what is dug out of the trash of phone records, bank statements, emails, etc. when the subpoenas start flying from the prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida and the Drug Enforcement Agency, trash that may reveal another level of embarrassing information for players, agents and possibly even MLB investigators.
Manfred is not going to have the hammer Selig held over owners, and utilized like Lyndon Baines Johnson. Which is why, as the storm fronts collide between now and 2016, he needs Bill DeWitt to hold together the center. DeWitt was approached early on about throwing his name in for Commissioner, and he declined. But he now may be the most important owner, successful, decent, rational, and Manfred needs DeWitt, Dave Montgomery and experienced, balanced owners—remember, half the current owners weren’t around in 1994 and have no idea what Selig did to take the game from a shutdown over a salary cap to the point where player costs are 49% of revenues (they sought a 55% in ’94), from a $1.1B industry in 1995 to nearly $9B in 2014.
No one understands baseball as television entertainment better than MLB Network’s Tony Petitti. No one understands individual clubs’ wants better than Brosnan. They can deal with other issues. It’s comical when owners say there should be less time between innings, as they cash the network checks. Want people to watch past the sixth inning? Limit rosters to 11 pitchers and eliminate the exhausting, boring tic-tac-toe matchups in the last three innings which, among many things, never allows us to see a David Ortiz or Joey Votto bat against a righthanded pitcher in those final innings. Want to cut back on the replay challenges? Start spending the money to develop umpires (read “As They See ‘Em” by Bruce Weber) to understand why there are so few young umpires coming along. Want some younger demographics? Try Giancarlo Stanton and Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw as the faces of the game and stop talking about the good ole days.
But Manfred cannot succeed until and unless the 30 ownership groups understand that they are 30 franchises of one business, and the greatest profitability comes from every one of them pulling in a like direction. There are big market owners that resent their levels of luxury tax payments, ignoring what Selig’s competitive balance has meant to the business, and there are small market owners whose dislike for the big markets grows incrementally.
Manfred and Michael Weiner did deals, and did so with dignity and civility. But there are issues Tony Clark and the new leadership want addressed, from travel (how ‘bout them getaway night games) to ballpark and even visiting clubhouse health issues in some cities. Both clubs and the union want to re-address the draft and international signing issues. The union does not want the draft in any way tied to free agency. Small markets want better balance between won-lost and revenue standings, so that top five markets like the Astros and Cubs are rewarded for poor performance, while well-run franchises the Rays, Athletics and Indians are punished.
The game Selig is passing on is in extraordinary shape, but with Bud Selig home in Scottsdale, Manfred needs a strong, respected leader like DeWitt to step forward, keep perspective and focus his fellow owners on what they have, not what each owner thinks he should have for his own fiefdom.
To paraphrase Richard Goodwin, for the next two years, every owner should ask not what Rob Manfred can do for them, but what they can do for Manfred and The Game. If that happens, he will be a terrific leader of the business and caretaker of baseball.
From the time Wayne Huizenga broke up the Marlins less than a week after they won the 1997 World Series, Miami fans have had a hard time allowing themselves any longterm attachment to the team, and current Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who despite the 2003 championship has had his rough moments in the market, understands this. But he also understands that with Lebron James out of town, the future of the Marlins in a market that embraces stars is keeping and building around Giancarlo Stanton, who at 24 years old is everything a franchise player should be. And so Loria privately insists that despite speculation of his eventual landing spot by the time he reaches free agency at the end of the 2016 season, Stanton, according to Loria, isn’t going anywhere.
Stanton analytically is the National League’s best player. He hits balls harder than anyone on the planet, his work ethic has incrementally improved his game every year; check his year-by-year OBP numbers, or his 4 multi-hit performances in the last 10 games. He is smart, modest, isn’t bothered by any ballpark, likes the city and clearly enjoys playing in a young, gifted outfield with Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna.
Loria knows he has marketing gold in Stanton and Jose Fernandez, his best players are under 25 and the farm system is loaded with big arms. He cites that attendance is up 18-20%, hopes he can refigure some of his regional TV deal, told me “we’ve turned this thing around,” so now, with the best position player in the National League in place to take Lebron’s role as area icon, has to try to convince Stanton and Southeast Florida that the promise of real baseball in Miami can be fulfilled.
If Loria has to backtrack and Stanton does go elsewhere, it likely will be the final nail in his ownership’s coffin. Jeffrey loves the game, he may well have saved baseball in Miami, and now he has a very difficult task moving it forward in a city easily distracted from one star-laden team at a time.
Recovering in Colorado
There is little doubt that there will be off-season changes to the Rockies’ front office and infrastructure. But this week’s surgeries to both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez may make it very difficult to make any significant trades for either, especially when one appreciates how difficult it is to come back from hip labrum surgery, and Tulowitzki will be trying to do. Before the surgeries, the Rockies figured it was time to begin marketing their stars. They know how difficult it is for bodies to recover in the Denver altitude; Tulo has played 125 games at shortstop in two of the last seven years, each has missed at least 49 games a season since 2009. Tulo is owed $114M the next six years, Cargo $53M the next three. So not only could the Rockies have to keep the $167M on their books, but have two star players trying to make significant comebacks in a place where recovery is a huge issue.
Rusney Castillo and defecting from Cuba
Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, liked by one evaluator to a Ron Gant who can play center field, will soon sign, for somewhere from $40M to $70M. The Yankees are big players, although because they are on the books for Alex Rodriguez next year, they are so far over the luxury tax line that they will have to pay 40-50% in taxes; say they sign him for $50M, they would have to pay an additional $20M or $25M.
There are two side issues involved here. One is that MLB is studying how Cuban players get out to Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, etc., and who and what is involved in cases that are likened to human trafficking.
The second is a concern some teams have about the calcium Cubans get in their diets. Both Jorge Soler and Jose Iglesias have been sidelined by stress fractures, and one club official says, “any Cuban player we sign in the future will have his bone structure and diet closely monitored. We worry about milk and all calcium intake.”